Screens & Feeders

The plant of the future

One of my mentors Don Brock, the founder and former CEO of Astec Industries, used to challenge us to “design a crushing plant that you can’t see or hear”. While at the time, many of us used to simply chuckle at what we thought was a clever quip, in retrospect I believe that in his brilliance, he was really trying to simplify a vision for our future innovation.

First, let’s examine what is undesirable about quarry equipment in terms of what can be seen. Let’s start with the obvious. Of course there is the jobsite itself, the heavy truck traffic, dust emissions, etc. But knowing my mentor, I am sure he intended for us to look beyond the obvious – he wouldn’t want our industry burdened with the public “seeing” people getting hurt on our equipment, our customers incurring unnecessary spending in their operations and inflating material prices, producing excess materials for which we had little to no use, and thus creating new mountain ranges of stockpiles, and so forth. As responsible members of the community, we do not want to infringe on public resources whenever possible – such as tapping into natural water sources, stressing public utilities, etc.

Next, let’s examine what is desirable in terms of what can be heard. Putting the obvious variable of “noise pollution” aside, what else might we consider? We obviously do not want to hear “silence” in terms of the equipment not running due to a mechanical failure (which could drive up prices through indirect spending). Nor do we want to hear that our products are out of spec or do not meet quality expectations. Of course, everyone is best served if our activities do not entice the environmental lobby and/or the neighbours to try to prevent us from doing our jobs through holding public hearings.

{{image2-a:r-w:200}}Based on the above in conjunction with adopting a current “lean” mindset, I believe that we can develop a “product definition” that looks something like this:

  • Efficient dust collection/suppression systems that do not rely on external water sources.
  • Equipment designed with intuitive, simple and reliable safety features and interlocks throughout that will immediately shutdown or take corrective measures to prevent human injury as well as equipment failures.
  • Refined guarding designs that will all but eliminate the opportunity for anyone to get close to moving parts or materials while the plant is operating.
  • Process automation to optimise system capacity and desired gradation yields, and minimise the production of undesirable materials.
  • Active noise control and/or noise suppression systems.
  • Transition point design and material containment will continue to improve to reduce the need for workers to manually clean around and underneath the machinery.

We can also expect our plants to be designed to better accommodate routine service requirements to perform simple tasks such as changing liners, screen media and so forth.

For example, manufacturers will continue to take advantage of advanced materials for everything from structural steel to wear liners. Undoubtedly, they will look for ways to reduce weight while increasing strength and extending fatigue/wear properties. Look for nano-technology to be the big breakthrough (the US Navy is already rumoured to be using “nano-steel”).

Mining inspiration

Obviously, there are many products on the market today that incorporate many of these characteristics. One area that we as aggregate producers can start to look at for ideas is the mining industry. For example, while typically not held to the same gradation and specification requirements that aggregate producers are, sophisticated miners have figured out how to operate fully automated systems with minimal downtime other than scheduled maintenance intervals. Their systems are generally fully enclosed, making it easier to collect dust and suppress noise, as well as reducing the visibility of their activities to the community.

{{image4-a:r-w:200}}However, I think we will need to continue to raise the bar – so where do we go from here?

While I don’t think we are going to see a sonic wave crusher encapsulated by image-reflecting panels any time soon, I do envision some cutting edge technologies being applied to our industry within the next few decades. For example:

  • Automation technology in general will continue to evolve. The use of optic and volumetric scales and sensors will provide real-time gradation measurements to provide the data sources needed to auto-adjust our machinery immediately to prevent unnecessary waste. 
  • As safety continues to be the primary issue, look for processing technology to strive to eliminate people from the plant during production.
  • To maximise profits and/or potentially operate during non-peak hours, expect plants to operate in true “lights-out” fashion without the need for a production crew to operate them. Such highly automated systems will operate at optimum levels to absorb costs.
  • More processing plants will be enclosed indoors to suppress noise and dust.
  • Dust collection technology continues to advance rapidly. Watch for bag house technology to transform how we keep the air clean around our jobsites.
  • Noise cancellation amplification systems could conceivably mitigate noise pollution.
  • The programmable logic controller (PLC) will continue to take on a greater role in auto-adjusting everything from loads in the crushing chamber to gap settings and crusher speeds.
  • Expect multi-frequency screening and on-the fly adjustment of screening variables to drive improved screening efficiency. We will measure screening efficiency and auto-correct for it.
  • This desire by communities to push quarries further away will also result in the increased use of mass transit systems to haul larger volumes of material greater distances. Look for rail and marine transport to make a big comeback, which means our quarries will process and handle material from the blast face all the way to the rail spur or the barge.

For the really sci-fi orientated reader, where else might we go? Will the sonic wave crusher ever become a reality? Will reflective imaging optics ever disguise the jobsite and hide us from the public?

I don’t know if we’ll ever achieve Dr Brock’s dream but he certainly provided the vision for us to try.

Paul Smith is the international marketing manager for the Astec Aggregate & Mining Group.


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